Blue Autumn in the Bayou (Gumbo Love) (2 page)

When he arrived at Clem’s house, the house and yard were
jam-packed with people. He searched for Reggie because he knew that wherever she was, so was her friend. He didn’t see Reggie, but saw a woman he thought was Autumn, and followed her as she made her way up the trail toward Clem’s garden. When he got close enough, he realized that the woman was not Autumn, but a distant cousin. So he pulled off to a different trail, one that led him to his great-uncle’s favorite spot on the property. He could smell a woman’s sweet fragrance before he actually heard her voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER
2

 

 

“There you are,” Diane placed her
long delicate hand on Travis’s shoulder. “We’ve been looking all over for you, sweetheart.”

Travis turned and looked up into his mother’s
ageless face. Her fair complexion had olive tones that, during the summer months, tanned a rich bronze. Aside from a different fragrance, something was different about his mother that day. He studied her face for a minute before responding. “Hi Mom. I’m just trying to get some space. It’s too crowded in there.” He pointed to the house. People stood and sat everywhere, including both the front and back porches. He’d moved farther out into his uncle’s yard, beyond the two dozen or so rosebushes Clem had loved so much. Travis sat on one of the two cement benches just beneath an old tree dressed with hanging moss. Uncle Clem and his wife, Esther, loved sitting in the serene garden for hours at a time.

“Come inside. You haven’t eaten a thing. And I know you
, Travis. If you don’t eat, there’s something seriously bothering you.” She chuckled as she embraced her oldest child’s neck. “It’s hard letting go of the old guy, I know. But he lived a full life and is finally at peace.” She looked into his grim face. “You know Uncle Clem would not want you moping. This is a celebration of his life, a chance to mingle with family. Besides, you should meet some of the young ladies here for Trae and Reggie’s wedding. A few of them came in early to help Reggie with the final wedding plans. So quit your pouting.” She kissed him on the forehead as her hands cupped his face.

Travis caressed his mother’s hand. “Yes
, ma’am.” He smiled, and when he did, he figured it out. His mother was relieved. The tiny lines he saw in her face days before, were finally gone. He kissed the inside of her hands. “Thanks, Momma.” He felt better already. The thought of meeting Reggie’s friend instantly cheered him up. Something about her was so familiar that it was hard to explain. Yet, something about the woman pulled at him.

Anxiously, Travis rose to his full height, dwarfing over his mother’s petite frame. He grabbed her hand and led her back to the house.

“Travis.” Reggie lightly tugged at his arm. “Who are you running from?” She’d heard his great-aunts taunting him in the kitchen when he’d made his great escape from the nosy relatives. “When are you getting married, Travis? How can you let your youngest brother beat you to the altar?” they’d asked. Reggie considered helping him escape, but enjoyed the panic in his face much better.

“You were in there, weren’t you?” He frowned down at her and she nodded holding her hand to her mouth to keep from laughing. “I can’t believe you just left me hanging lil’sis
! Seems everybody has jokes today, and Travis is the butt of them all.”

“No, wait, Travis. I’m sorry. I must say it was fun watching you worm your way out of there. By the way, when are you getting married?” She snickered.

“Never, for your information, little girl.”

“No? Never say never, it’ll come back to bite you.” She reached up and hugged his neck.

Travis quickly pulled away from Reggie’s embrace. He thought he would come right out and asks about her friend, but decided not to after her last comment. Next thing he knew, she would be trying to fix him up and he wasn’t ready to be fixed up with anyone, even Autumn. He looked down at Reggie and said, “Well, when it happens, if it happens, I’ll be sure to catch hell from you, won’t I?”

“You got that right, big brother.” She burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Travis shook his head and walked away. He’d be damned if he got tangled up with some woman. He headed straight for his truck. When he pushed himself behind the wheel, snapped the seat buckle closed, and reached up to release the sunroof over his head. As he pulled out, with jazz music blasting from his speakers, he heard his name called. He looked in his review mirror, he saw Michael, but Travis kept going. 

Travis dropped his keys into the tray on the hall table and turned the corner of the hallway to enter the kitchen. In three long strides he yanked opened the right side of the refrigerator and pulled a cold beer from the door. He chugged from the bottle several times before he walked to the phone and hit the play button on the answering machine. 

“Big man, I’m in town for a couple of days. You know where I’ll be.” A sultry voice echoed from the black box. A smile eased across his face. Savannah was a hot number from Savannah, Georgia. When he first met her, he wondered why her mother had named her after the city of her birth, but he quickly learned why. Freaky as hell, she did things with him no woman in her right mind would have dreamed of doing. 

Her timing couldn’t
have been better. He needed a distraction, something to get his mind off of losing Clem. He sighed. Savannah was just what he needed that night and he planned to make the very best of it.

H
e picked up the phone and dialed the ten digits for the Maison St. Charles. When the line clicked, just the sound of Savannah’s velvet voice made his temperature rise. “I’ve been waiting for you, Travis, darling.”

“And how did you know it was me?” He sat the half
-empty beer bottle on the counter top.

“No one else knows I’m in the city. Besides, I came especially to see you. I’m ready, so hurry up and get here.”

“And what about dinner?”

“You are dinner, baby boy. Hurry, you
know I got something special for you, don’t you?”

“Of course. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Don’t make me wait long, Travis.”

“I promise I won’t. See you soon.”

“Soon.”

Travis broke into a stride the instant the phone slipped back into the phone base. He picked up his keys and headed straight for his truck. If he was going to rumble between the sheets with his girl-toy all night, he needed
sustenance.

He pulled into the Shell station and walked directly to the food counter. The woman at the register knew him and what he generally ordered. “The usual?” 

“You know it, and can you rush it for me, Yvonne? I’m a little late, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure thing, it’ll be up in just a few minutes.”

“Thanks.” Travis paid for his order. He took the large cup from the woman’s hand and stuck it under the ice machine before filling it with sweet tea.

He turned and then stopped dead in his tracks. Had he not put the lid on the cup when he filled it up, which
he usually didn’t, tea would have been down the front of his shirt. With the straw pinched between his lips, he swallowed hard to rid his mouth of the cool, sweet tea. The liquid burned the back of his throat when it went down the wrong pipe. He bent forward, and released several rough coughs to loosen the muscle constricted by the liquid that slipped into his air passage.

Quickly
, Autumn went to his rescue. She slapped his back several times with the palm of her hand. “Are you okay?” She watched Travis’s face darken. His eyes watered, and he continued to cough for several more seconds. In the meantime, Autumn reached over and took the drink from his hand. The slight touch of her hand against his ignited an electric spark. She watched him as he shot straight up after which she captured his gaze. Watered eyes looked down into hers. 

Autumn shielded her reaction by lowering her lids, blocking the intensity of his probe. By the time he fully recovered from his coughing spell, Travis’s voice broke the
trance and she looked up into his handsome face again.

“Thanks, I
’m fine.”

The magic of his brilliant smile and overpowering masculinity
was her undoing. To add fuel to the fire, his deep voice vibrated straight through her body; melting the guard she’d so meticulously erected. She followed the line from his square chin up the sides of his strong jaw until her gaze centered on the heavenly long lashes hiding his dark brown eyes.  

“You’re welcome.” She stammered. “This is yours.” She handed him his tea, careful not to make the same mistake of touching his hand. Travis took the same care in accepting his drink. His gaze traveled from the fine lines of her luscious lips down to the soft flesh peeking from beneath the low white tank top, and then back to her gorgeous face. 

Autumn took a shaky step back. The energy between them and his probing appraisal stifled her breathing.
Did he not think I would see him checking out my chest?
She fumed when she caught him staring down at her. A frown instantly formed. Whatever energy they’d shared earlier was discarded and she gracefully erected her shield up again. Now as she looked at him, all she saw was a man. In her mind they were all the same.

Travis sensed the change in the charged energy between them. He also caught the frown that
vanished as quickly as it had formed. She was upset with him already and he didn’t know why. He raised his right eyebrow as he gazed at her, remembering every detail of her face. Something about her eyes was unsettling but he didn’t linger on them. He moved his gaze to the two extra holes in her earlobe with no earrings in them. He also noticed the long vein in her neck as it leaped several times. Yes, she was mad at him and he needed to defuse the situation or he would not get to formally meet her.

“Listen, I’m sorry if I’ve done something to offend you.
Can we start over?” His lazy smile grew wide. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Travis Brooks. You’re a friend of Reggie’s, right?” He waited for her to accept his hand, but instead, she stepped back.

“Yes, I’m Autumn, Reggie’s maid of honor.” She ignored his outstretched hand. “I saw you at the church earlier today.”

Travis let his hand fall to his side and he dropped his head down to one side as he watched her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Autumn. I thought you were at the house with the other ladies.” 

His voice still raced through her but Autumn resisted the
effects of its rich timbre. “No. I can’t say I’m much of the funeral type…” Before she could finish her sentence the woman from behind the register called out to Travis. The vibe between them was lost, and Autumn frowned at his dismissal. She turned without saying anything else, and headed for a side door. Her head told her that she should stay clear of Travis, yet something in her heart ached for him. He stood close enough for her to feel his breath on her face. Something about this man she wanted to know, badly. Nonetheless, Travis was off limits. Her heart would just have to get over it. She walked through the door without a second glance back.

“Wait
. Can I give you a lift?” Travis called after her, she was already gone. He ignored the woman at the food counter at first. But then he walked over and retrieved the bag she held out to him. “Thanks.” When he got to his truck, he looked around the parking lot to see if he could spot Autumn driving away, but he didn’t see her. 

Travis pulled into the Maison St
. Charles Quality Inn and parked in the first vacant spot he saw. Right now, Savannah would occupy his time. Before he could fully knock on the door, it swung open and Savannah pulled him into the room. She draped her arms around his shoulder, pulling her full figure to his, and she greedily covered his mouth. Travis managed to close the door. He swept her up into his arms and went straight to the bed.

“It’s about time you got here
,” she whispered. “I’ve been waiting all day for you.”

“Well, I’m here
, now.” He wasted no time with ridding his body of his clothes.

After his energy had been spent, Travis rolled over onto his side. His thoughts were still on Autumn. The picture of her face was vibrantly etched in his brain. He took a sighing breath, mov
ing from one position to another. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he went to the bathroom, showered, and dressed. 

“Where are you going?”
a sleepy Savannah called across the short distance. “We’ve just started.”

“Sorry
, sugah. I have to get back to my family for a short while. Some of them are headed back tomorrow. I’ll come back a little later tonight.” Even as the words escaped his lips, he knew it was a lie. He didn’t plan to come back that night. The pleasure of her body just wasn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped.

He walked over to the bed and kissed Savannah on the forehead
, and she grabbed his arm. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Sure. Get some rest. You’re going to need it.” He smiled.

“Alright. Call me later.”

“Will
do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

Three days after bumping into Autumn at the Shell station, Travis stumbled and bumped his way around the city, in hopes of running into her again. She didn’t show up at his parents’ house for the repast, nor did she join the other ladies at the luncheon the day before. He fished for answers from Reggie, but all she would admit to was that Autumn had a previously planned engagement and that they were to meet up at the bridal boutique to decide on a maid of honor’s dress that day.

He even stood up Savannah the
previous two days trying to be where he thought Autumn might show up. Hell, he didn’t even know this woman very well to be out chasing her. He could have just asked Reggie about her. After all, they were paired together to make sure Trae and Reggie’s wedding went off without a hitch. He had a right to know as much as possible about her. But honestly, he had to admit his motives were more than the obvious.

He stood in the doorway of Trae’s kitchen with his back to his youngest brother. “So Reggie and the girls just left, right
?”

“Yeah, man
. I can finally have some quiet around this joint. It’s been crazy around here the last few days.”

Travis turned around to face Trae with a grin as wide as the Mississippi. “You got yourself into this lil’ br
uh. You can call this thing off you know.”

“Man, I love that girl. I’ll walk through hell for her.” Trae placed
his cup on the breakfast bar and stood. “I wouldn’t trade what I have with Reggie for anything in the world.”

Travis gazed at the serious expression on Trae’s face. He could almost believe that one woman could affect a man as Reggie had done to him. He had enough evidence that it could happen to practically anyone.

Where was she anyway?
Travis couldn’t begin to explain why he wanted so desperately see her. Something about Autumn burned in his soul.

Travis walked over to the breakfast bar and embraced his brother. “It’s all good man. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy for you.” He slapped Trae on his back.

“It’s good, TK. I know this and one day, it’s going to happen to you.”

“Whoa, hold your damn horses! Nobody is going to have me tripping like this. No offense, baby boy. Look, you and Reggie got something special. Do that thing and make sure you make me plenty of nieces and nephews.”

“You’re a trip. But I’m going to be the first one to ride your hide when you get bitten, got it?”

“You’re talking crazy. So let’s change the subject. What do you say we hit up Momma’s kitchen for lunch
, and then we can run a couple drills with the bruhs at the frat house?” He walked toward the front door but stopped dead in his track at Trae’s comment.

“I’m in for the lunch deal, but I’m supposed to meet Reggie and the ladies over at City Park to take pictures.” Trae was only a few steps behind and nearly ran into
Travis when he stopped.

He
looked behind him, directly at Trae. “Why City Park?”

“Look man, I just show up where I’m told. I don’t get to make any decisions. I just open my checkbook and keep my mouth shut.” Trae mimicked zipping his mouth close.

A million thoughts ran through Travis’s mind. How would he explain showing up to their photo shoot? He and Trae’s other groomsmen were set to have their own photo shoot. He could always give Trae a ride after leaving their parents’ house. Yeah, that’s it!

“Look, how about I drive and once we leave Mom’s
, I’ll drop you off where you need to go?”

Travis wasn’t fooling anyone, especially Trae who knew him like a book. “Okay, big brother, which of these ladies are you interested in? Now you know they’re all Reggie’s girls and she’ll cut you in half if you mess with any of them.”

“I don’t need your or Reggie’s permission or help, even if I was the least bit interested in any of her little girlfriends. That’s it. You’re on your own. Drive your own car.” He turned and didn’t wait for Trae’s response.

“I’m just saying TK
, you’re taking a chance on getting your feelings hurt, man. These girls are all serious minded. They’re not looking for a roll in the hay.”

Trae’s comment hit a raw nerve. He knew his brother meant well. Something about
Autumn got under his skin and he was letting his curiosity get the best of him. He knew Trae thought Travis’s playboy ways would not set well with Reggie, when it came to her friends. Even if it was, he didn’t need his baby brother to tell him so. He stormed away and jumped into his truck. He pulled out of the driveway without looking back.

*
* * *

“Now you know you got just a little too much booty for that dress
,” Erica blurted out when Autumn turned around as she modeled her sixth dress of the day. Reggie, Mona, and Erica sat near the three-way mirror and watched Autumn model each dress she tried on.

“You can’t talk, little girl!”
Everyone burst into laughter. They’d all been friends since high school and Erica was always thin, but she was healthy, considering she’d been in and out of hospitals most of her life. Battling Sickle Cell was a crisis the girls managed together.

Anyone outside of their circle would have thought Autumn’s comment was cruel, but to them
, it was their way of keeping things real. Erica wanted and was treated like everyone else and often got her share of teasing. She had her father to thank for her big feet and that earned her the nickname “Coon”.

They
all had nicknames. Reggie was Pic-Wic, namely because her parents were working professionals who moved around every two or three years. Pic Wic was the term used for the upper and business class families. As teenagers, they’d spent nights at Reggie’s house for sleepovers and the girls all thought they were a part of the Pic-Wic Club. Although Cheri and David Miles socialized with prominent businessmen, lawyers, and politicians, they didn’t consider themselves elite. To Reggie’s friends, the Mileses were and the name stuck.

They called Mona
“Speed”. She won the state record for both the one-hundred and two-hundred-meter runs three years in a row, but that wasn’t the only reason she got that name. Mona was what the old folks called fast. She didn’t like or date young men her age. She liked older men, even when she was fifteen years old.

Autumn
, on the other hand, had two nicknames. “Gee”, because she was tall with a long delicate neck. It wasn’t close to the length of a giraffe’s neck, yet she held her upper body with the same grace. And looking at her from the front, she was straight up and down, but when she turned to the side, you could see the curve of a shapely behind. She’d always had the exotic look most women would die for and she got it without having to do anything to have or keep it.

Her second nickname, never repeated
outside of their group because it made Autumn uncomfortable, was Quadroon. Quadroon was a name given to people of a mixed culture. Her blue eyes against her cocoa brown complexion often garnered questions from outsiders who didn’t understand how she inherited her looks. It was the kind of response she hated with a passion. Their family secret was really not a secret among the people who knew her parents or grandparents. To keep from drawing attention to herself, she started wearing color contacts that changed her eye color to a dark hazel. When she wasn’t wearing contacts she wore dark shades.

And
that day, she sported a pair of Channel tortoise-shell framed shades. She’d been absent the previous three days to give her eyes a rest from the contacts she’d been wearing since two weeks before. She’d totally forgotten to renew her prescription before she left New York a month prior when her dance troop performed the last show for the season. By the time she set foot in New Orleans, she realized she couldn’t get the prescription filled until she had another eye exam.

Autumn felt comfortable enough to go without her eyewear around her friends. They already knew her story. But
she wasn’t ready to deal with strangers gawking at her like she was a sideshow. She was a little apprehensive at first when she removed the glasses, especially when the boutique owner seemed astonished by her exotic looks. “Are you a model?” the woman quickly asked.

Autumn shut her down just as quickly. “No. And please
, can we just get on with the dresses?” she didn’t want to be rude to the woman, but she didn’t want to explain her looks to her or anyone else. Luckily for her, the prescription would be ready for pickup before they headed to City Park for their pictures with the groom.

“I still say it shows a little too much. It’s too tight, Gee. Here, try on the last one.” Erica handed her the last of the potential gowns Reggie had selected before Autumn arrived.

Autumn took the dress and with a deep sigh headed back to the dressing room. “Let’s hope this one fits, ’cause I’m not trying on another dress today, my sisters!”

“And hurry it up
, will you? I’m starving. We need food and soon,” Mona ordered.

“Who died and made you queen?” Autumn peeked from behind the curtains.

Autumn watched Reggie as she sat in the cushion-backed chair with her legs crossed. Erica sat on the floor right next to her. She hadn’t said much. Autumn recognized that faraway look she had whenever she thought about her college friend, Valerie. She knew how much she missed Val because she learned by going to counseling sessions with her that Reggie at first blamed herself for the accident, and often questioned why she was spared instead of her then roommate. It took many sessions for her to accept that the incident was not her fault. She’d met Valerie twice and had only learned of the accident and her death months after it occurred. When Reggie moved to New York, Autumn willingly opened her spare room to her long-time friend. She’d never seen anyone so determined in her life. Reggie used dance as her healing balm, which worked for her until it was time for her to reunite with Trae.

“You okay, girl?”
Autumn asked Reggie.

Reggie half-heartedly smiled. “Sure. I’m so glad all of you are here. I don’t think I could get it done without all of you.” She looked at each of her friends.

“Honey, we wouldn’t have missed this for all the crawfish in Louisiana. Besides, one of us had to get married. These other two hags have no potential. They’ll be fifty before any thought of a man entered their minds,” Mona happily chimed in.

“Now, I know you can’t talk
, Mona. Everybody you date has at least one foot in the grave. At this rate, you’re the lost cause.” Erica shook her head.

“Well
, we’re not getting any younger, but for me, dancing is my man. And right now, I’m really happy with him,” Autumn added to the conversation from behind the curtain.

“All those sweet, hard, round behinds you get to squeeze on the stage, Miss Thing, I’m sure you can snag one of them
,” Erica said.

“Trust me when I tell you that some of them try to pull more men tha
n you do,” Reggie injected.

Just as Autumn pulled the curtain back to reveal the last gown, everyone stood and gasped. The soft sheer top blended with her brown shoulders, and the folds of the dress kissed every curve perfectly. “She’s right.” Autumn didn’t finish her sentence because she was caught off guard by her friend’s expressions as she waltzed from the dressing room. “What? Is this it?”

“Definitely.” Reggie reached for Autumn’s hand and pulled her toward the three-way mirror.

“Girl, it’s you
,” both Mona and Erica replied at the same time.

Autumn looked at her reflection in the mirror. They were right. The dress was perfect, a perfect color for her skin
, and the perfect fit for her body type. “Okay, ladies. This is it.”

They all stood there for a minute and admired Autumn. Even the owner stood in the mix
, eyes fixed on the beauty they all saw in the mirror.

“Okay, let’s get out of here
. I’m starving,” Mona said for the second time. “Hurry, get that booty back into those jeans so we can go eat!”

“You’re so single
minded.” Autumn pouted and headed back behind the curtain. “I have to stop and get my contacts before we go anywhere.”

“That’s clear on the other side of the city
,” Mona protested.

“It’s fine. We can stop and eat at Pavilions for lunch before we head to the park. Trish and Shelly will meet us
there.” Trae’s sister and cousin were the two youngest bridesmaids.

“Why are we taking pictures?” Autumn stuck her head from between the curtain.

“These are our memories, Autumn. We’ve already talked about this. What’s your beef with taking pictures?”

“And can you hurry it up, Gee?” Mona plopped down into the nearest chair.

“Hold your horses, Mona. Dang! One would think you haven’t eaten in years,” Autumn countered.

“Like I said, the pictures are our memories.” Reggie glared at both women.

“I can’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about all of this, anyway. You and Trae are practically married already.”

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